04 SES 07 B, Doing well: Special Needs And Belonging In Inclusive Education
Belonging to a family, a small group or the wider community has long been characterized as one of the basic human needs. Following the seminal work of Abraham Maslow (1943), many authors in the field of psychology have argued that fulfilling the need to belong forms a basic requirement for an individual’s psychosocial adjustment and development (Bowlby, 1969; Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Drawing upon this work, many authors examined the importance of belonging to the school community. The findings of these studies suggest that developing a strong sense of belonging to the school is associated with both affective and academic outcomes (Osterman, 2000; Anderman, 2002). For example, Anderman (2003) found that school belonging was associated with personal interest and intrinsic motivation for accomplishing school tasks, while Irvin et al. (2011) concluded that school belonging represented a strong predictive factor for academic success. Although different theoretical models of school belonging can be found in the literature, the model proposed by Goodenow (1993) has received most research attention. According to this model, school belonging is a multifaceted construct defined as the feeling of being accepted, respected, included and supported by both teachers and peers, combined with a sense of participating in school activities and being valued within this community. Accordingly, school belonging is based on supportive and caring relationships with teachers, reciprocal and close friendships with peers, and meaningful participation in extracurricular and school-based activities (Cemalcilar, 2010; Bouchard & Berg, 2017).
With regard to students with special educational needs (SEN), the literature portrays this group as possessing a lower sense of school belonging than their typically developing peers (Dimitrellou & Hurry, 2018; Nepi et al., 2013). The available studies highlight the impact of the inadequate social relations these students often form within the school context on their sense of belongingness. Specifically, in contexts where poor relationships exist with teachers and peers, students with SEN feel less accepted and less valued as members of the school community (Murray & Greenberg, 2001). Experiencing learning difficulties coupled in some cases with behavioral problems results in low academic achievement which, in turn, reduces these students’ sense of belonging (Nepi et al, 2013). Although some studies failed to detect such associations (Hagborg, 1998; Frederickson et al, 2007), it could be suggested that students with SEN run a greater risk of being marginalized and struggle to become valued members of the school community.
With the above literature in mind, the purpose of the present study was twofold. First, it sought to determine the sense of school belonging experienced by a group of marginalized students accredited with moderate learning difficulties (MLD). Secondly, it aimed to elicit the social experiences of these students, thus gaining a better understanding of the ways they had coped with their marginalization.
The study forms part of a large research project examining the social participation of students with MLD in regular secondary schools in Greece. The first phase of the project involved a sociometric assessment of the social standing of students with MLD within their class network alongside the administration of various psychometric instruments. The second phase upon which this study draws involved conducting semi-structured interviews with twenty students with MLD who had emerged from the first phase as enjoying low peer acceptance. These marginalized students were interviewed towards the end of the academic year with a view of eliciting their social experiences and their perceptions of belonging to the school. Data were transcribed verbatim and were analyzed according to the principles of the inductive data-driven approach advocated by Boyatzis (1998). This approach involves the open line-by-line coding of a subset of the data in order to develop initial descriptive codes and, at the second level of analysis, the formulation of thematic codes. Finally, these thematic codes were applied to the whole sample via ‘within-case’ and, subsequently, via a ‘cross-case’ analysis. In this paper, the results of the ‘cross-case’ analysis are stressed.
The evidence collected in this study re-affirmed the outcomes of the quantitative phase of the project which portrayed students with MLD as occupying a low social position within their class network. These students experienced low peer acceptance and were marginalized in the sense of having very few friendships and less social interaction with peers. However, at the same time, they had managed to transcend their marginalization through establishing one close friendship which in most cases was outside their class. Further, it was also found that the presence of supportive teachers in their school had resulted in them feeling secure and valued. Moreover, their participation in extracurricular and school-based activities had led to the development of positive social self-perceptions. All the above had contributed to the formulation of a stronger sense of school belonging than it was initially anticipated on the basis of their sociometric assessment. The evidence clearly suggests that restructuring the school environment and actively supporting marginalized students can assist them in their struggle to fulfill the need to belong to their school community. The paper concludes with highlighting the need to provide relevant training to the school staff and provides some guidelines for its content.
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